Senators Introduce Legislation to Curb Endless US Wars, Lethal Arms Sales

A U.S. Marine deployed in Al Buhardan, Iraq in March, 2006. (Photo: Cpl. Brian M. Henner/USMC/flickr/cc)

Senators Introduce Legislation to Curb Endless US Wars, Lethal Arms Sales

The measure includes a sunset of all authorizations of the use of military force including the 2001 AUMF.

A trio of senators on Tuesday introduced legislation that would beef up congressional authority in national security with provisions to narrow presidential power to launch hostilities, make it easier to block certain weapons sales, and sunset authorizations of the use of military force including the 2001 AUMF that paved the way for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

"The founders envisioned a balance of power between the executive and legislative branches of government on national security matters. But over time, Congress has acquiesced to the growing, often unchecked power of the executive to determine the outline of America's footprint in the world," said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who introduced the National Security Powers Act (pdf) along with Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah).

"The time is long overdue for Congress to reassert its constitutional role in matters of war and peace."
--Sen. Bernie Sanders

"More than ever before," he continued, "presidents are sending men and women into battle without public debate, and making major policy decisions, like massive arms sales, without congressional input."

On the issue of war powers, the proposed legislation would cut off funding for military actions not explicitly authorized by Congress. It would also tighten the definition of "hostilities" under the War Powers Resolution to cover not just cases of military forces on the ground but troops deployed "irrespective of the domain." Hostilities not approved by Congress would be required to end after 20 days rather than the current 60 days.

The measure would also sunset 180 days after enactment all existing AUMFs, including the 2001 AUMF passed in the wake of the September 11 attacks and upon which every consecutive administration has leaned to justify military actions in regions around the world.

Instead of the current default approval of arms sales barring a passage of a resolution of disapproval by veto-proof majorities of the House and Senate, the proposal directs Congress to proactively approve certain sales topping $14 million including those of air to ground munitions.

The legislation would further restrain executive national security powers by requiring congressional approval of an emergency declaration within 30 days. Such emergencies wouldn't be allowed to exceed five years, with annual congressional renewals needed. The legislation would also limit the range of emergency powers the president could tap.

Making the case for the legislation in an op-ed published Thursday at War on the Rocks, Murphy put the proposal in the context of the current moment "when the definition of enemies and the parameters of war are harder to define than ever" and "the pace of executive warmaking has become dizzying." The National Security Powers Act, he added, would "reset the foreign policy balance between the Congress and the executive branch."

The restraints on arms sales, he noted, would not apply to U.S. allies including Israel. He explained:

On warmaking, the bill would require that any authorization for the use of force abroad be bound by specific objectives and geographic limits and be re-evaluated after two years. Congress could renew the authorization, but only by a vote of both chambers. If there's a strong case to be made for that war to continue beyond two years, the administration should have to make it to the American public, and Congress should vote on the matter. No more endless wars. This bill replaces the current War Powers Act, closing loopholes long used by the president to circumvent Congress while also forcing members of Congress to stop abdicating its duties and take the tough votes on matters of war and peace.

With respect to arms sales, current law only applies to the biggest weapons transfers and requires Congress to pass a resolution of disapproval through both houses in just 30 days. That's too limited and cumbersome. It should come as no surprise that Congress has never successfully stopped an arms sale through this process. But the National Security Powers Act would flip the script and require Congress to take a limited number of affirmative votes before the proposed sales could proceed. And we wouldn't need to vote on every sale, just those that pose the highest risks, as in cases where the administration proposes to sell the most lethal or technologically advanced weapons to countries other than our NATO allies, Israel, and key defense partners in the Asia-Pacific region.

Sanders, for his part, stressed that the legislation is sorely needed to put a check on runaway militarism.

"I believe that we have become far too comfortable with the United States engaging in military interventions all over the world, and the time is long overdue for Congress to reassert its constitutional role in matters of war and peace," Sanders said. "The Framers gave that power [to declare war] to Congress, the branch most accountable to the people, but over many years Congress has allowed its oversight authority to wane and executive power to expand."

"This legislation is an important step toward reasserting that constitutional power, and I hope it will lead to a larger discussion, both in the Congress and among the public, about the uses of military force in our foreign policy," he said.

Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) is expected to introduce a House companion measure in the coming weeks.

In a statement Tuesday, McGovern expressed hope the measure would "put an end to endless wars, reexamine broad executive powers, and build a more safe and peaceful world."

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